Rome: Seven years ago, Dagmawi Yimer was “between life and death” when Italian navy officers rescued him and 30 others from a skiff in heavy seas between Libya and the island of Lampedusa.
Today, Yimer directs documentary films about immigrants like himself from the home in the northern city of Verona he shares with his Italian partner and their two-year-old daughter.
He is part of the fast-growing immigrant population that is changing the face of Italy, just as it has transformed the populations of more northern European countries such as Britain, France or Germany.
He is also one of many foreigners who are trying — through cultural initiatives such as films and books — to change the racist views of many Italians of the immigrants in their midst.
Contrary to popular perceptions, immigrants are making their mark across the Italian economy, politics and society.
African-born author Kossi Komla-Ebri, a 59-year-old medical doctor, has published six books, all in Italian.
“Many immigrants think our emancipation is only economic and political, but we are convinced it’s cultural and that we can have a more profound influence through culture,” he said.
It isn’t easy. Italy’s immigration wave is swelling just as the country is struggling to emerge from its deepest economic downturn in the post-war era.
Nearly eight per cent of the population here is foreign born, and in 50 years the number will triple to 23 per cent, according to a projection by Catholic charity Caritas.
To help pay the pensions of an ageing population and to ensure long-term growth, Italy needs to integrate its immigrant population into the workforce, economists say.
But high unemployment, especially among non-student young people, has fuelled anti-immigrant sentiment among the Italian mostly-white population.
Italy’s one-million strong Afro-Italian community, a fifth all legal immigrants, got a high-profile representative earlier this year when African-born Cecile Kyenge became the country’s first black minister.
It did not take long before she was likened to an orangutan by a well-known politician and had bananas thrown at her at a public meeting.
Many white Italians view the Afro-Italian community and other immigrants as cheap labour or petty criminals — partly because many work as domestic help and farm labourers or sell counterfeit goods in the streets of big cities.
Moreover, children born to immigrants do not automatically receive citizenship even if they are born on Italian soil, attend Italian schools and spend their whole lives in Italy.
They must wait until they turn 18 to apply. Though Italy was a colonial power in Africa in the 19th and 20th centuries and migrants have come to Italy for decades, the country has mainly served as a transit route for the rest of Europe and so remains an overwhelmingly white country.
Over the past two decades, another factor has thwarted attempts to develop a comprehensive and inclusive immigration policy: the anti-immigration Northern League, once a key ally of Silvio Berlusconi’s former coalition governments.
Backed up by TV images of overcrowded boats being rescued off Italian shores, Northern League politicians portray migrants as invaders coming to steal jobs — rhetoric that neglects Italy’s history as a country of immigrants to North and South America in the 19th and 20th centuries.
It was high-ranking Northern League member Roberto Calderoli who likened to Kyenge to an orangutan this year.
Members of the neo-fascist Forza Nuova, or New Force, party were suspected by police of throwing bananas at her during a public round table on immigration. It denied responsibility.
The party also left mannequins covered in fake blood outside a Rome administrative office, urging her to resign because “immigration is the genocide of peoples”.
Kyenge seems to have taken it all in her stride, never losing her calm in public and sticking with her goal of making it easier for immigrants’ children to gain citizenship.
Only last month did the 49-year-old she reveal that she too had been a “badante”, or house servant, for six years to pay her way through university, saying it had been one of the most difficult times in her life. Born in the Democratic Republic of Congo to a tribal chief with 38 children and four wives, she ended up an eye surgeon until she became a lawmaker and minister earlier this year.
“I’m not coloured, I’m black,” she told Reuters in an interview in her office in central Rome, rejecting the phrase “di colore” or “coloured”, which many think is the politically correct Italian term for blacks.
“It’s the proper term because it forces everyone to face the reality of a multiethnic Italy.”
One of the community’s oldest cultural initiatives is the “African October” festival inaugurated 11 years ago in the northern city of Parma and now celebrated in Rome and Milan, showcasing African artists, writers, musicians and filmmakers.
“The meeting between Africa and Italy is very important,” says festival founder Cleophas Adrien Dioma, who was born in Burkina Faso.
Komla-Ebri, who came to Italy in 1974, is a doctor in a hospital north of Milan and writes in his free time. This year his book Imbarazzismi — an Italian neologism merging the words “embarrassed” and “racism” — was printed by Edizioni SUI, a publisher owned by an Eritrean-born Italian.
In the book, Komla-Ebri writes about when his white Italian wife took a walk in the park and a stranger complimented her for adopting two “African orphans”, or the time her friends ask her what he eats, “no doubt with the chilling thought of a menu of smoked snake or boiled elephant knees”.
The anecdotes capture the often naive quality of racism in Italy, infamously exemplified by Berlusconi’s 2008 remark — made in jest, he said — that the newly elected Barack Obama, was “young, handsome and sun-tanned”.
Yimer, 36, harvested grapes in the south and later handed out flyers to university students in Rome until he took a video production class offered to immigrants by a non-profit group.
His fifth documentary film — released this month — is about three Senegalese men recovering from racist attacks.